Trends in personal note-taking habits

Many of technology’s greatest inventors and entrepreneurs were avid note-takers, and I strive to follow in their footsteps and use their same strategies for being intellectually engaged. I’ve been taking notes on life and writing down musings ever since high school, and have kept them organized and stored digitally since 2006.

Now it’s 2012, and I have six years of note data, spanning from my first year of undergrad to my first year in the software industry. How have my note-taking habits changed? How do the contents and statistics about my notes, in aggregate, tell a story about my life?

My notes come from many sources – scribbles in the margins of a notebook in class, quotes I copied from books or websites, detailed reflections of an emotionally meaningful event, and ongoing thought experiments. I cluster my notes by topic areas, and then revise each cluster until it tells a cohesive and meaningful story that I’ll be able to look back on and understand. In this process, some notes are elabored on, and some get deleted.

My notes are organized by school year – each grouping starts approximately in September and ends approximately in August. Since graduating I’ve kept the same pattern. For simplicity, years will be denoted by the second year in the span, e.g. 2007 for 2006-2007.

Word Counts Per Year

To get some data to look at, I took the word counts of all notes to myself in each year. I used Microsoft Word’s word count tool for consistency.

In 2007, I wrote 34358 words. It was freshman year at Stanford, and I wrote just shy of 100 words per day on just about everything, particularly on acclimating to a new environment and identity.
In 2008, I wrote 56972 words, a 65% increase. Writing and categorizing had paid off last year in helping me define my identity and environment, and I did a lot more of it in nearly every topic area in sophomore year.
In 2009, I wrote 39584 words, dropping back to freshman-year levels. Some topics increased in word count, but most went down: either I thought about them less or found less need to reflect on them.
In 2010, I wrote 25193 words, another big drop. It being senior year, I prioritized being out doing things, and often changed my mind about social and intellectual goals. As a result I only wrote things down that were particularly meaningful to me, and only kept ones that I was proud of, deleting the rest.
In 2011, I wrote 37351 words, surpassing 100 words per day again. It was my fifth year at Stanford and I was wrapping up my master’s degree and living in an apartment rather than a co-op, so I was both more intellectually stimulated and had more alone time to write.
In 2012, I wrote 40144 words, another slight increase. This was my first year out of school, and just like freshman year, I was acclimating to a new environment.

Below, I’ll refer to high word-count years such as 2008 as “reflective years” and low-word count years such as 2010 as “social years”.

Finding Trends in Topics

As noted above, I break up my documents into topic areas. Some topics are staples represented every year, others are special interests that come and go. I looked at the raw word counts of each topic each year, as well as the proportion of the topic in that year’s total word count, to find and interpret trends.

Experiences – what happened this year: What did I do? Where did I go? Who did I meet? How did I feel about it? This trend is consistently a fifth or more of my total word count, and was the #1 topic for 4 years straight, 2008-2011. It somewhat varies inversely with the total, increasing during social years when I had more events and interactions to reflect on. Sure enough, in 2009 when it peaked, my life was full of activity: No on Prop 8 activism, multiple on-campus jobs, turning 21, and interesting travel.

Self & Goals – everything about me, outside of the context of the events around me: Who am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses? Where have I come from? What should I achieve with my life? This adolescent navel-gazing was the #1 and #2 topic in the first two years of college, respectively. During this time, I came out as gay, I explored many options for what to study, and I thought over the major events of my youth in search of meaning and patterns.

Dreams – dreams that I remember and that were meaningful enough to write down, which occurred about once a week. Dreams were consistently 4-5% of the year’s total, but the raw counts varied from 1000 words in 2010 to 2700 words in 2008, proportional to the year’s total. This could either be explained by that reflective years had increased mental activity and thus increased production of dreams, or that reflective years resulted in increased awareness of dreams and elaboration on their meaning.

Quotes & Vocab – memorable quotes, ranging in sources from friends and professors to books and websites, as well as useful words and phrases to add to my lexicon. As a percentage, this was about 10% of the total every year; like Dreams, this topic was proportional to the year’s total. Reflective years with lots of writing total lend themselves to longer quotes like book excerpts, and social years with less writing tend to have short snippets, like conversational one-liners.

Future & Plans – plans for the next year or later: classes, career planning, apartment planning, and social aspirations. The graph of this topic bulges in 2008 and 2010, the years I decided what major to declare and what company to work for after graduating, respectively.

Technology – ideas and thought experiments around math, science, and computing, with an eventual focus on tech strategy, programming, and human-computer interaction. It hovered at or below the #4 topic for a few years before emerging as #3 in 2010, #2 in 2011, and finally #1 in 2012, where at 18528 words it is the largest topic-year pair in my entire dataset. Taking masters’ level classes in CS and HCI bumped it up during my last 2 years in school; working at Facebook and obsessively reading tech blogs gave it the push to #1.

Culture & Politics – observations, theories, and ideas around social science, policy, and arts. This was the #2 topic of 2007, a year when Econ and Communications were on my list of potential majors and journalism was among my hobbies. It then faded away over time as my academic interests shifted to technology and my cultural interests focused specifically on LGBT culture.

LGBT Culture – observations and reflections on pride, identity politics, activism, gay neighborhoods, safe sex, and more. It increased my first three years in school, peaking at the #2 topic of 2009, a year that began with marriage equality on the ballot and ended with me living in a gay mecca having just turned drinking age. In future years, the fewer notes I wrote on this topic fell into Experiences or Relationships instead.

Friendships – thoughts on qualities I look for in friends, mentors, and professional contacts. It didn’t exist as its own topic until 2010, having formerly been encapsulated within Experiences. It became a topic of its own during senior year and onward: when friendships began to be determined more by serendipity and volition than by the environment of college dorms and classes.

Relationships – All about dating and love. Relationships has the strongest correlation with social years: it’s 13% of my notes in my 2 most social years, and less than 5% of my notes in my reflective years. It’s also slowly shrunk over time, as my notes on dating have evolved from long ramblings on “What’s my type” and “Am I ready” to short blurbs like “Where should our next date be”.

Books – Reflections on what I’m currently reading. In 2008, I made it a goal to record my thoughts and reactions to books I read, particularly books on social psychology and information. This ended up more tedious than expected, so I didn’t repeat it. In other years, books got a mention in Experiences, and some passages were copied to Quotes, but that’s it.